What is Parliament for?

5 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2012 Last revised: 24 Feb 2015

See all articles by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: December 1, 2011


Seldom do we stop to ask what is the purpose of Parliament? What are its functions and how does it carry them out? If we do not try and answer these basic questions, Parliament is at risk of failing to focus on its fundamental purposes and functions. The Review of Standing Orders has made numerous recommended changes for Standing Orders, some important and which will improve Parliamentary function. What is lacking, however, is any analysis of what the purposes and functions of the Parliament are and how it can best go about achieving them. The response of the Standing Orders Committee is inadequate to meet the needs faced by the House.

Thanks to the mixed member proportional system, diversity of representation in Parliament is greater than was previously the case. One would have thought that this wider representation would have enhanced the respect in which Parliament is held in the community. But the behaviour of MPs and the performance of Parliament do not engender feelings of widespread respect. But while relentless criticism of public institutions can be helpful in improving their performance, it can be damaging as well, by exaggerating problems without bringing to public attention good work that is done. Unless there is adequate communication between the governors and the governed, democratic accountabilities break down. The lack of job descriptions for MPs creates further difficulty. The classical function of representing one’s electorate has become masked in recent years. MPs can easily fall into the trap of being spread too thinly over a range of functions so that none can be performed adequately.

Parliament’s first function is to provide the government, determine its identity and provide it with confidence and supply. Parliament must be able to produce stable government. Nothing in New Zealand constitutional arrangements indicates that Parliament is a forum for party political contest, but increasingly, that is what it has become. Political jostling is a poor substitute for real efforts to hold government to account. Not enough attention is given to the tasks of government and serious probing of policy, and too much media attention is focused on political sensation and trivia.

The core purposes of Parliament making law by passing legislation, approving the levying of taxes and deciding upon government expenditure are vast tasks. Parliament must take its constitutional responsibility as supreme lawmaker much more seriously in order to protect the fundamental values of the rule of law. We are in the midst of a massive legislative logjam; the inescapable conclusion is that the New Zealand House does not sit enough for the work it is being asked to do. While the changes to Standing Orders go some way in repairing these issues, more radical measures are called for. In blunt terms, the Parliament has to work harder. Constitutional and parliamentary fundamentals must be upheld.

Keywords: Parliament, constitutional law, Standing Orders Committee, Standing Orders, rule of law

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

Palmer QC, Sir Geoffrey, What is Parliament for? (December 1, 2011). [2011] New Zealand Law Journal 378; Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper Series Palmer Paper No. 20. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2174168

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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